BusinessPeople In BusinessProfile: Jon Mitchell, FD of online booking service The Trainline

Profile: Jon Mitchell, FD of online booking service The Trainline

Despite his youth, The Trainline FD Jon Mitchell has clocked up plenty of career miles. Here he talks about running the finances of a £320m operation and the challenges of working in an industry with a poor public profile

At just 33, Jon Mitchell already has an impressive pedigree. He has qualified
as a CA with Grant Thornton, overseen the significant restructuring of parts of
Richard Branson’s Virgin empire and spent a two-year stint in New York launching
Virgin mobile in the United States from scratch.

As the financial director of The Trainline, a company operating in one of the
most emotive industries in the UK, he is going to need every bit of experience
that he has built up over the course of his career.

‘The rail industry is one of those that the UK public loves to knock and I
think it does get some bad press. There are still issues around reliability so
some of the criticism has been justified but anytime there is a price rise,
there is going to be press comment about it,’ Mitchell says.

‘At the end of the day I think the prices are still competitive compared to
other modes of transport and reliability is improving.’

The Trainline, which provides online booking services for train journeys, has
endured its fair share of the flak Mitchell is referring to, with critics
claiming that the booking service it offers does not always provide the cheapest
fares available. It is a problem Mitchell is well-aware of, and one that he says
is already being addressed.

‘Sometimes a return fare may be more expensive than two single fares. What is
difficult to put in place is the system of logic where we provide customers with
the exact fare they request, while providing other, possibly cheaper options,’
Mitchell explains.

‘We are working on making it much more apparent on the website,’ he says.
‘That has been driven over the last couple of years by rail operating companies
trying to push their single fares more than their return fares. That is where
the industry is going and we need to be on top of.’

For all the criticism and relentless scrutiny, rail travel appears to be as
popular as ever, with more than a billion journeys made on the network last year
alone. ‘The fact that people are going back to trains with so many other forms
of transport available must say something about improved reliability, improved
service and improved pricing,’ Mitchell says.

A further indication of the rail sector’s good health is the workload
Mitchell has had to plough through during his first year as The Trainline’s
finance head.

Over the past 12 months, the finance team reporting to Mitchell has doubled
to 12 and he has overseen the integration of QJump, which merged with The
Trainline in 2004.

The merger created the UK’s leading supplier of train travel products with
annual sales of £320m and eight million customers. ‘We have taken over a company
that is a third of our

size. The first year has been about getting the basics right and making sure
we have the systems in place to handle such a big acquisition,’ Mitchell says.
‘Now we have to start improving what we do by providing more products to
customers and getting better in the management reporting provided for the

For Mitchell, these tasks – setting up new reporting structures, recruiting
teams and introducing new systems – are the kind that he thrives on. After
spending two years in banking, Mitchell got his first taste of the kind of
project management he is now involved in when he was appointed as an ‘investment
manager’ at Richard Branson’s Virgin group.

Working with four colleagues, Mitchell was charged with the task of improving
the level of reporting to Virgin head office from the basket of Virgin

‘Virgin, as a group, is not like a traditional company. It is very much like
a small central company with lots of individual, autonomous operating companies
and power lies with each of the individual businesses,’ Mitchell says.

‘The head office function is very small, but as a group there was a need to
introduce better compliance, governance and financial reporting. The role of the
investment managers was to start getting some central reporting going and have
corporate governance in place from a group perspective.’

It was a role that expanded beyond setting up reporting and governance
structures to assessing the value of all the companies in the Virgin group.

‘I was fortunate enough to be involved with some new business opportunities
within the group and divest some smaller companies that were not using the
brand. It was our job to look at the role of these companies and the strategy of
the group going forward. We focused on key businesses, and one of the challenges
was divesting some of those smaller entities, which was interesting work to go
and do,’ Mitchell says.

As interesting as it was, it could not have compared to the next job Mitchell
took on, when he crossed the Atlantic to New York and set about establishing
Virgin Mobile in the US. It was a case of no brand presence and a skeleton
finance function.

It’s an experience that Mitchell describes as one of the most memorable and
most challenging of his life.

‘It was also one of the most interesting things I have ever done. Going to
work abroad in New York for two years was a fantastic opportunity. It offered
new perspectives and I met my wife over there. It was one those life-changing
things in more ways than one,’ Mitchell says.

When he arrived in the Big Apple, the US operation had a mere 40 employees
and a finance team only five strong. By the time he left two years later, the
company had 240 staff and Mitchell’s finance team had grown to 35.

‘It was a case of getting your hands dirty and getting involved in everything
– starting off with business planning and budgeting to cash management
techniques and making sure the company was capitalised properly,’ Mitchell says.

‘We went out and got bank debt in place for that company, set up operational
reporting and recruited to grow the team,’ he adds.

‘The people there took me in and made me feel like a part of the growth and
success of the company. I really got to do everything there and saw the company
go from nothing, with no products, no phone working, no retail distribution and
obviously not making any revenue to being a profitable company with a huge

Despite his success in New York, when the opportunity at The Trainline opened
up, Mitchell couldn’t resist. In his first job at Virgin, Mitchell had crossed
paths with The Trainline and after the QJump merger, Mitchell felt that it was
time to return to the first Virgin company he had been involved with.

‘It was tough to leave but I came back because of the opportunity at
Trainline. I would have loved to have stayed in the US for a bit longer, but
working in this role enticed me back over,’ Mitchell says.

‘I see myself at the Trainline for the next few years. The company is no
longer an internet start up. It has become profitable. It has done that scene
when lots of online retailers went the other way.

‘We are making money and can concentrate taking the company to the next level
and I intend to do that.’

Virgin experience

From humble beginnings, the Virgin Group has evolved into a hugely diverse
organisation, made up of 200 companies employing between them 25,000 people
aroundthe world.

Starting out in 1970 as a mail order record retailer, Virgin Group now has
interests in everything from air travel to bridal wear and generates annual
sales in excess of £4bn.

Jon Mitchell, the FD of The Trainline, which is 80% owned by Virgin, has
worked for Branson’s company for the last five years and says the group’s
success is down to its unique culture and unorthodox approach to business.

‘Each of the Virgin companies is autonomous, but one thing that runs through
all of them is that they are innovative companies where everyone can get in on
the decision making and where views are listened to,’ Mitchell says.

Although only 33-years-old, Mitchell has held a number of senior financial
positions at Virgin. He spent two years at Virgin Management where his tasks
included overseeing the demerger of The Trainline from Virgin Rail Group. He was
also given the opportunity to head up the finance team of Virgin USA, where he
worked on the launch of Virgin Mobile.

Whether these opportunities would have been made available to him at such a
young age within other organisations is debatable, but at Virgin it is not
unusual for young people to be given responsibility. ‘I have had a wonderful
opportunity to work within a group where you can be promoted fairly quickly and
everyone is assessed on their merits,’ Mitchell says. ‘It’s a fun, relaxed

The atmosphere is so relaxed, in fact, that even as a member of a board,
Mitchell is not required to wear a suit to work. ‘If you are not used to this
easy-going approach it comes as a bit of a shock,’ he says.

‘If you come in from an environmentwhere you wear a suit and tie and it is
very rigid and you move to a Virgin company it can be very different.’

Mitchell believes that the special Virgin culture is so influential that it
has helped recruitment. ‘It is a tough market to recruit people in. One of the
benefits we have is the company. We had people that started off as temps but
came on board because they just loved the culture here,’ Mitchell says.

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